The Long Tailed Pull of Grief

Although I think I prefer the earlier parts of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems 1966-1987, there were still several poems I found appealing in the last two sections. One of my favorites uses a kite as a metaphor for the human soul. Perhaps I find that appealing because I just returned from a beach trip where I’ve often flown kites; still, Heaney uses the metaphor to suggest a number of interesting possibilities:

A Kite for Michael and Christopher

All through that Sunday afternoon
a kite flew above Sunday,
a tightened drumhead, an armful of blown chaff.

I’d seen it grey and slippy in the making,
I’d tapped it when it dried out white and stiff,
I’d tied the bows of newspaper
along its six-foot tail.

But now it was far up like a small black lark
and now it dragged as if the bellied string
were a wet rope hauled upon
to lift a shoal.

My friend says that the human soul
is about the weight of a snipe,
yet the soul at anchor there,
the string that sags and ascends,
weigh like a furrow assumed into the heavens.

Before the kite plunges down into the wood
and this line goes useless
take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand in here in front of me
and take the strain.

At first the poem seems merely about a kite, about a kid’s toy. The interesting contrast between the “tightened drumhead” and “blown chaff” seems merely to accurately describe a kite. Later, though, when we realize the kite is used as a symbol for the human soul we wonder how these details fit in with the extended metaphor. Is our soul “a tightened drumhead” or “useless chaff?”

Though the kite metaphor hardly seems original, the emphasis on the tail of the kite does seem so. In a sense this “long-tailed pull of grief” may well keep the kite from flying up to heaven, keep it anchored to the earth, as it were, but, when you also consider that a kite flies wildly out of control without a tail, the role of grief in our life takes on a very different role. Our grief, like our joy, provides stability in our lives and allows our soul to soar while still tying us to the earth.

Believe it or not, we are all “born fit for it,” are all able to “take the strain.” Doing so makes us human and unites us with those who stand here next to us.

“The Stone Verdict” is quite different from “A Kite for Michael and Christopher,” but I find the poem strangely appealing, perhaps because I still don’t quite know what to make of it. At first glance it’s the simplicity of the poem that attracts me. After reading it a couple times, though, it’s the unusual use of “Hermes” that most seems to appeal to me:

The Stone Verdict

When he stands in the judgment place
With his stick in his hand and the broad hat
Still on his head, maimed by self-doubt
And an old disdain of sweet talk and excuses,
It will be no justice if the sentence is blabbed out.
He will expect more than words in the ultimate court
He relied on through a lifetime’s speechlessness.

Let it be like the judgement of Hermes,
God of the stone heap, where the stones were verdicts
Cast solidly at his feet, piling up around him
Until he stood waist-deep in the cairn
Of his apotheosis: maybe a gate-pillar
Or a tumbled wallstead where hogweed earths the silence
Somebody will break at last to say, ‘Here
His spirit lingers,’ and will have said too much.

Maybe I was first drawn to this poem because I wear a broad hat and carry a walking stick when I hike, which is often, and have never been too fond of “sweet talk and excuses,” particularly from students. I doubt, though, that I will ever be accused of relying on “a lifetime’s speechlessness,” especially after writing this weblog for nearly a year.

I do, however, identify with the “strong, silent” type who wants nothing to do with “feelings,” finding it quite difficult to discuss my personal feelings directly. I come by this naturally as my dad was definitely a “man’s man” and personified the strong, silent type. My movie hero as a child was John Wayne, and he was known for action, not dialogue.

The image of Hermes used here, though, is the most interesting part of the poem for me. I’ve always thought of Hermes as the messenger of the Gods. I never realized he was associated with piles of stones. Apparently he was an early God that was marked by piles of stones, or cairns, and was later adopted by the Greeks. Nor did I realize that he led the dead to Hades.

However, I could discover nothing about Hermes burying the dead in stones, so that seems to be Heaney’s fusion of the various aspects of the mythology. Personally, though, I could think of no greater tribute than to have my passing marked by a cairn that silently says “this is the way,” preferably one that marks the way around Mt. Hood or Mt. Adams.

Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987 is never going to become one of my favorite volumes of poetry, but like most good poets he allowed me to see the world in new ways. For me, the poems’ greatest insights stem from Heaney’s victimization as a minority in Northern Island. Like Naoimi Nye, Heaney offers us a viewpoint we can probably never experience ourselves. However, we can learn a valuable lesson from him that will help us to better see the world through the eyes of the oppressed, a lesson Americans probably need more than ever in these trying times.

Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Speech (courtesy of If )